How to Convert a Building into Lab Space

The Big Picture

Before we get into whether your building can physically become the life science space you hope to have, there are three big picture questions about your property that you need to answer.

First consider zoning. Is laboratory, or whatever you seek to create, an allowed use in that area of your municipality?  We won’t go too deep on this because you will have to speak with your local authority having jurisdiction or hired professional familiar with local zoning ordinances anyway, but avoid the mistake of assuming just because you are in a “commercial” area or your occupancy say “commercial space” that lab space is  allowed.

Are you willing to “give back” or “give up” rentable space?  There are a lot of infrastructure upgrades that may take up real square footage. For instance, shafts for mechanical systems like lab waste systems, hot water risers, non potable and tepid loops, ductwork, and lots of sheetmetal running through  your building will take up quite a bit of space. There are other potential needs such as larger loading docks and corridors, just to name a few, that will also eat up space.  At the end of the day that is all lost rentable square footage.

Making more square feet! Here’s a recent lab conversion where interior shaft space was not an option. We adjusted and went with exterior duct risers with color wrapped insulation to blend with the facade. Fun fact: We pre-fab all the duct work by insulating and coating the insulation in the shop to minimize working at heights and trying to wrap between the duct and the facade.

Finally, what do you want this tenant and space to look like?  Should you build spec lab or build to suit? Which type of life science tenant will you have — is it a vivarium or traditional laboratory space? Answering these questions requires solid research into what the market is demanding and what a tenant will pay. A quality lab broker can be a real asset in helping your answer these questions.

The Physical Building

So, if you still want to convert your building to lab space there are three areas of your building to address in order to successfully deliver a life science building to market: facilities, MEPs (mechanical, electrical, plumbing), and building structure.


Loading Dock and Freight Elevators

Believe it or not, things as simple as the loading dock and freight elevators are often overlooked as part of the infrastructure due diligence phase. Lab tenants use larger equipment and materials than typical office users. Thus, the loading dock needs to be able to handle larger and more frequent trucks. The freight systems need to handle heavier and larger objects. Freight corridors must also be large enough to allow for the maneuvering of the large equipment/materials for distribution.  You do not want a tenant coming to you later complaining that they cannot bring their materials into their space because the back hall is too narrow. Oh, and invest in corner guards and bumper rails.

Chemical Storage Rooms

These rooms are containment areas to house multiple tenants’ chemicals. The rooms are fire rated, and they require fresh and exhaust air, emergency showers, and epoxy floors. They should be centrally located for access to loading docks and lab tenants.

PH Neutralization Rooms

Typically located in the lowest point of the building, PH Rooms contain emergency showers and have connections to building sewer discharge. They can either be complete systems sized for all the lab tenants with lab waste risers, vents, and treatment tanks, or the room can be set up for the future. When setting up for the future each lab tenant would provide its own PH system in the room with its own lab waste/vent piping to the space. It really depends on how much you, the owner, want to provide and what the market is giving. One other option for treatment is local standalone chip tanks located at each tenant’s lab sinks. This option needs to be approved by the AHJ. 

MEPs (Mechanical, Electrical & Plumbing)

Natural gas is the best option to power the boilers, generators, and make-up air (MUA) heat. There are other options, but gas is the most efficient and requires the least maintenance. Beware if you need a new service because utility companies have an extremely long lead time. It’s best to get in front of them as quickly as possible. 

A boiler system and the heating hot water riser loop is typically provided for the lab reheats and some MUAs. If you have an existing boiler system for your condenser loop or other components then sometimes you can increase the existing systems BTUs by adding boilers. Another option is to install heat exchangers to increase loop capacity. The goal is to provide a specific amount of BTUs at a flow rate to support the outside air requirements per square foot for each lab tenant.

Redundancy of systems is a huge part of the equation when it come to life sciences. There is no allowance for failure of a decade-long experiment being ruined because the power circuit went out or there is lack of ventilation. On this project we went with multiple rooftop units, but interior space is an option too. It just depends on the circumstances.

Lab tenants and lab infrastructure require a tremendous amount of power compared to office suites and standard HVAC systems. Each tenant build out will typically get its own normal and standby power distribution, each system sub metered for billing purposes. In most cases the building service will need to be upgraded or a secondary service will be brought into the building for lab infrastructure only. Sizing depends on how many square feet you wish to convert to lab. The same principle applies to standby power. New generators are installed to support the building conversion. Once you have the service and generator loads figured out you need to provide distribution throughout the building to support the labs. 

Lab buildings need a tremendous amount of fresh and exhaust air. Typical new systems include 100% MUA units and separate EAHUs (exhaust air handle units). The EAHUs will contain an energy recovery coil and is connected to the pre-heat of the MUA. MUAs can either be connected to the heat and hot water (HHW) loop or gas for reheat provisions.  For cooling they can either be direct or connected to chillers. Either way, the MUA air must be either heated or cooled (conditioned and filtered) prior to supplying air to the VAV system in building. Typical conversions provide stub connections for the exhaust and supply sheet metal risers to each floor, sized by “x” CFM per square foot of lab.

Building Structure

Slab thickness, floor-to-deck height, and other structural components are critical to any conversion. Decks need to be higher than typical office buildings to allow for the MEPs to be installed and still leave room for the tall lab equipment. Slabs need to be strong enough to handle the added loading and absorb vibration from equipment. Do not forget the added snow and wind loads now caused by the new exterior systems. All these factors can be costly and should be considered. You may find out that your building cannot handle the added load of the new MEP systems and may require significant structural  modifications.

How do you install all these systems in your occupied building? It’s not easy. Many building owners carve out shaft areas throughout their building to allow for the installation of MEPs. Others install new systems to the exterior of the building. Some use both methods. Roof space is equally important to consider. Do you have enough space to adequately house and service the new equipment? Sometimes existing systems need to be relocated to allow for the installation of new systems. 

So where do you go from here? 

Talk to a lab broker to determine whether your building will entice the lab market. Then engage an experienced life science design team and construction manager to provide a due diligence study/budget. You get what you pay for here. Find people with the right experience – they’re worth every penny.  Especially if they tell you that converting to lab space is not a good idea for your building, the pennies spent in the short run just saved you thousands or millions in the long run. Keep in mind that lab conversions can be very intrusive to existing tenants, and they are the ones currently paying rent. They will experience shutdowns and potential re-homing which adds another level of cost to be considered. With all that considered, if the team does advise you to move forward, and you agree, then the plan should address the following:

  • The number of square feet you want to make “lab ready.” 
  • The services you are going to provide.
  • Whether your lab will be spec built or build to suit.
  • How to design your infrastructure systems for future phases. Specifically, have each phase be able to deliver X amount of square feet of lab. That way you are not paying or installing all the systems at once, rather you are only paying what is necessary to support future growth. For example, install the pipe, and ductwork to support a 100,000 CFM system, but only install a MUA at 50,000.
  • Get in touch with utility companies to get them started on service designs.

Hopefully this article will get you started when it comes to thinking about a lab conversion but there’s so much more to discuss. I’d love to continue the conversation. Let’s connect, Andrew Colameta and Sterling Construction on Linkedin. Thanks for reading!

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.